The summer is the season when West Sussex County Council – and presumably many other British councils – decide to start spreading gravel on their country lanes, sticking it down with tar and hoping that motor vehicles will ‘bed it in’. This technique is apparently called ‘chip seal’.
It is simply awful to ride on, especially when it has just been laid – the gravel is still loose, and slippery to ride on. Stones get flung up, particularly by passing vehicles, which rarely stick to the 20mph suggested limit. And it’s a poor surface to ride on, even when it has been ‘bedded in’ – rough, and noisy, and far worse than a machine-laid tarmac surface.
Worse than that, chip seal appears – to me at least – to actually accelerate the deterioration of a road. Here’s an example, a mile away from where the new chip seal has been laid in the photograph above.
This road was ‘chip sealed’ in the last four to five years (I can’t remember precisely when). But as you can see, the layer of gravel has been intermittently blasted off, leaving a bumpy patchwork surface, partly composed of the remaining chipseal, and the underlying original road surface. Again, absolutely awful to ride on, but more problematically, the kind of road surface that is going to deteriorate very rapidly. Potholes are already starting to develop in the areas where the chipseal has been blasted off. The depressions are places where water is retained, perfect for the development of road damage.
I’ve cycled on country lanes in most of the countries of western Europe, including places where roads are subject to extremes of temperature – Switzerland and Sweden. Yet no other western European country appears to employ ‘chip seal’ – they seal roads properly, with machine laid surfaces. My guess is that these roads – while more expensive to lay in the short term – are much cheaper in the long term, because they last much longer than this strange ‘gravel’ approach.
Why does Britain do things differently? Is chip seal genuinely cost-effective? Answers please!